Scientific Studies are Becoming Difficult to Read

Ellie McFarland | @El_FarAwayLand

Vaccine and climate “skeptics” have been in the news for the past decade. Known as anti-vaxxers and climate deniers to the public, they ignore science, insult people with different opinions, and fearmonger innocent people. These are the people everyone can laugh at– liberal, conservative, anarchist, or statist. Yes, everyone laughs at the meme involving an anti-vaxx mother balming pasteurized milk for her child’s scarlet fever. The media and pop culture have done a fantastic job of making the scientifically illiterate universal punching bags. But we shouldn’t be blaming these people; scientific studies have been getting harder and harder to read, and the scientific community has played its part.

Obstacles to Comprehension of Scientific Studies

Last year, NIH (National Institute of Health) issued statements relating to deliberately obtuse language in scientific studies. They discouraged the use of complicated language, mazy sentence structure, or obscure jargon. This was met with disappointed declarations about how Americans are getting dumber and children are too absorbed in their smartphones. How tragic it is that serious scientific papers need to be simplified so just anyone can read them. But that is the wrong way of looking at this issue.

Americans aren’t becoming less intelligent but rather, scientific studies have been getting harder to read since the 1950s. The abstract of a paper on sleep deprivation written in 2017 reads, “Total sleep deprivation and chronic sleep restriction increase the homeostatic sleep drive and diminish waking neurobehavioral functioning, producing deficits in attention, memory and cognitive speed, increases in sleepiness and fatigue, and unstable wakefulness.” That is one sentence. A paper on sleep deprivation in children from 1935 reads, “No one can go to sleep by an effort of will, and the sense of this inability is the main cause of insomnia.”

The issue is not even that the sentences are more complex, but that they use less common language, and far more needless jargon. Instead of saying “The plants that are used in this study…” the study may list the scientific names of each plant, entirely obscuring their common names. Long and multisyllabic lists can make a sentence confusing and hard to follow. Scientific names with no mention of common names can hide the whole meaning of a study.

Scientists are not doing this with malicious intentions. They are not purposefully hiding the real information present in their study, but that is the ultimate result. In the scientific community, these jargon-heavy studies are the standard. In most scientific journals, a study that is written simply or conversationally won’t be picked up. There has been a game of Jargon-One-Up in the scientific community. In conjunction with the sensationalism needed to conduct pop-science studies, this creates a climate of confusing yet meaningless studies. It is more advantageous to a scientist looking to make money to conduct a verbose study about an eye-catching subject than to write clearly about an important yet mundane subject.

This language and jargon issue is really no problem for these scientific journals or for the scientific community. They know the jargon and they are experienced enough in the writing style to understand it fully. The publishers, contributors, and readers of scientific journals are in somewhat of an intellectual bubble. They can enjoy the jargon, fully unaware that for the majority of people, these articles can take hours to unpack.

A Responsibility to the Public

It is an all too common idea that the scientific community is bereft of responsibility to anyone but themselves. Maybe specific government agencies are included with enough luck. What the public, media, and most important scientists, need to understand is that scientific communities have a duty to fulfill. Their duty is to make knowledge available and usable to the people who need it. This is not just other scientists. In fact, the only way a free market society can work is if people make informed buying choices. Much of the time this depends on the public’s access to accurate and easily-decryptable information. Scientists must maintain a degree of professional honesty and commitment.

This is true for journalists, doctors, and all people who serve the public. Doctors have the Hippocratic oath and journalists must abide by press laws (although there is a lot to unpack there). But there is no such code, oath, or license needed to be a scientist. The closest thing scientists have is the scientific method, which is only a technique and can be manipulated by anyone willing to be dishonest. Private research firms can hire whoever is most profitable to their company. A scientist who can publish monthly to prestigious scientific journals and get featured in pop-science publications is highly profitable.

If reasonable values aren’t already instilled in a research firm, they have no reason to care about anything but profits and publishability. Such lip service is paid to scientists in The West. Most people don’t even know how research scientists make money. There is a danger in this type of ignorance when it comes to such an important profession. The result of study click-bait and ornate language is a less scientifically literate population.

Accountability in the Scientific Community

There are three groups who are responsible for the clarity of scientific studies. First, it’s the scientists, research firms, and labs who must hold themselves accountable. The media and science journals have to favor clear research and honest subject matter. The public must be willing to call out both the media and scientists. Part of what makes science and scientific literacy so important is that it doesn’t take a license or degree to know a study doesn’t add up. Anyone with a good grasp on the scientific method should feel a duty to call out bad science.

The labs, research firms, journalists and scientists are where it all starts. Private businesses must hold themselves accountable to the public through study protocol, ethics boards, and inspectors. Scientific journals cannot favor needlessly gordian papers just because that’s what’s in fashion. With the apparent exception of teachers, not enough people seem to realize the position scientists hold in this country. They influence buyers, the media, and the government. If they want to maintain this power, they need to show all of us that they are willing to be self-regulating.

The media is the second part of this equation of holding the scientific community accountable. With the exception of research papers, people have no reason to go looking for their own information on things that distantly affect their lives. Most people find out about important scientific research from the mainstream media. If reporters and journalists aren’t able to accurately translate studies, people will become misinformed. The obvious suggestion is to not hire people who are not scientifically literate and who cannot interpret the jargon.

That is a good starting place, but it doesn’t do enough. When or if this fantasy responsible MSM decides to cover poorly written studies, they have two responsibilities. They must first make the study painfully clear, making sure to expose every flaw or margin of error that could be missed. Leave no idle reader uninformed. Second, they have to make it clear the study was written ornately so it could sell. But that whole song and dance would get tedious quick– which is exactly the point. The media should not be rewarding scientist’s bad behavior. A better way to get scientific papers out to the public is reporting on peer studies. These check the validity of the original study and are more likely to be less complicated as they are not designed to sell.

Lastly, it is up to us, the public to do our job as actors in the free market. We have to call out both the media and scientists. But the upside is that it isn’t particularly hard. If a study seems off, ask questions, if it is off, call it out. Look for the real answers, read carefully. The only way a scientific free market can ever work is when the public is informed. Unless the end desire is a government controlled scientific community, we have to be active in creating our own regulations. Scientific literacy is decreasing because we have been too lax on the people and corporations responsible for maintaining it. Now, as citizens under capitalism, we must do what is right to fix this mess.

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